Everton out to shrink gap with Tottenham, in short and long term
Everton and Tottenham followed a similar Premier League trajectory until recently, struggling for consistency for years before proving themselves as a top-eight team. But as the teams prepare to meet at Wembley on Saturday, the gap between them has rarely seemed wider.
In the three seasons since Roberto Martinez guided Everton to fifth place and their best Premier League points total in 2013-14, the Toffees have finished 17, 23 and 25 points behind Tottenham. The recent record between the two teams emphasises the gap as Everton are winless in 10 meetings, home and away, and without a win in nine away meetings.
In the long term, Everton want the same level of consistency that Mauricio Pochettino has brought to North London, improving the points total and league position in each of his first three seasons. Everton have lacked that continuity with both Martinez and successor Ronald Koeman unable to sustain progress after impressive first seasons.
In the short term, the onus is on manager Sam Allardyce to prove he is the man to take forward such a project. The first step is putting his own spin on the squad, a process already underway. With midfielders Kevin Mirallas and Ross Barkley the first players to head for the exit, striker Cenk Tosun, signed from Besiktas, is the first addition under Allardyce. Further incomings and outgoings seem inevitable as the reshaping of an unbalanced squad continues.
One thing aiding Allardyce for the rest of the season is a less hectic schedule after a run of 10 matches in 35 days to start his tenure. This settled fixture list and players returning from injury should also lessen the constant rotation employed to keep players fresh. With the FA Cup defeat at Anfield matching similarly abrupt exits in the Europa League and Carabao Cup, the league is the sole focus from now and presents Allardyce with a 16-game audition to stake his claim.
His ability to organise a defence and remedy that aspect of a team has never been in doubt; Everton are already seeing the benefit of that, registering more clean sheets in fewer games under Allardyce than the rest of the season combined.
However, the problem of late is at the other end of the pitch. In fairness, Everton have struggled creatively and in front of goal throughout the season, but recent matches amplified those shortcomings. They have not managed a shot on target in the first half of any of the last five matches and have just five on target in total across those 450 minutes of football. This output has contributed to three successive defeats and five games without a win in all competitions.
Question marks about aesthetics and attacking football have always been the issue with Allardyce, the one weight hanging heavily over him, but this is his chance to prove the doubters wrong, and the second half at Anfield last Friday pointed the way forward, should Allardyce settle on a more adventurous approach.
With the introduction of Ademola Lookman as a substitute, Yannick Bolasie on the other flank and Gylfi Sigurdsson in the No. 10 role, Everton began to cause problems and scored their best goal of the season as the latter applied a first-time finish to a fine counter-attacking goal. The enterprise shown by 35-year-old captain and centre-back Phil Jagielka to race the length of the field and record a surprise assist is the sort of enterprise that has been in short supply of late.
Lookman has scarcely appeared since scoring twice in the Europa League in December, recording a man-of-the-match display against Apollon Limassol, but his dribbling ability and pace caused problems at Anfield, and this is the ideal scenario to hand the youngster an extended run in the team and see what he can do.
Along with the recent struggles of Wayne Rooney and the improved form of Sigurdsson, there is also a case for the latter enjoying a prolonged run in his preferred No. 10 position. After no goals or assists in his first 10 league appearances in royal blue, the Iceland midfielder has recorded three goals and two assists in the next 10. Tellingly, three of his last four goals in all competitions materialised when working in central areas.
It might be overly bold to start with Bolasie, Sigurdsson and Lookman as the attacking trio behind whomever fills the lone striker role -- likely new arrival Cenk Tosun -- but that second half at Anfield, even though it ended in defeat, is the first time in months Everton looked like a football team.
Allardyce has the ideal platform to discard his safety-first approach and loosen the shackles on his players. Having steadied the ship and moved Everton clear of a relegation scrap, the onus is now on the former England manager to deliver in attack. A win against Tottenham at the national stadium would be a good starting point.
Luke is ESPN FC's Everton blogger. Follow Luke on Twitter @lukeofarrell.